Bloopers figured prominently Tuesday as Sandra Maas’ pay-equity case against former employer KUSI-TV barreled toward closing arguments Wednesday morning.
Kyle Wilcox, KUSI’s creative service director, testified that he found 12 error clips or outtakes of Maas for use at company parties — and none of her longtime co-anchor Allen Denton.
Ashlie Rodriguez, a former KUSI anchor/reporter now working for Fox5 in New York City, recalled during a virtual appearance how Maas used to show Denton how to pronounce certain words.
But KUSI lawyers made a flub of their own after calling “economic damages expert” Anna Addleman to the witness stand.
On a large screen, they showed the jury “compensation comparisons” of Maas with the retired Denton as well as current anchors Logan Byrnes and Jason Austell.
Maas and Denton’s salaries have been made public in court records and testimony. But not those of Byrnes and Austell. The charts suggested salaries for all four.
Judge Ronald Frazier was first to notice that the figures could be used to calculate annual pay for Byrnes and Austell. He asked Times of San Diego to delete the photos. At first, we gave consent.
But when the courtroom was closed to press and public (to shield KUSI pay discussions), this reporter decided to challenge the informal “delete” request.
Back before the judge, I noted the First Amendment and prior restraint aspects of the request. Two dozen people in the spectator gallery also saw the pay charts and weren’t cautioned to keep mum.
KUSI attorney Ken Fitzgerald conceded the “inadvertent” screening, but told the judge: “You obviously have the authority to order [the photos] deleted.”
Judge Seeks Opinions
Saying he was reluctant to exert that authority, Judge Frazier called for KUSI and Times of San Diego to submit arguments on the pay-comparison photos. Frazier also said he’d seek guidance himself — apparently from court superiors.
In the meantime, he said, Times of San Diego is under a “conditional order” not to post the photos. We are complying with that order.
On Day 11 of the trial — with many objections to testimony and close to a dozen “sidebar” chats or in-chambers meetings — KUSI called to the stand Wilcox, who said he shared the Maas blooper reel with GM Mike McKinnon Jr. in the wake of her June 2019 lawsuit.
Wilcox said Denton tended to correct himself too fast to make for a good blooper clip. But he also found flubs by reporter Ed Lenderman (who used the F-word on air), reporter Dan Plante and “a whole bunch” by former anchor Carlos Amezcua.
Next up was Mike McKinnon III, the 2012 Torrey Pines High School graduate son of station GM McKinnon.
The young McKinnon, who began work at KUSI in June 2016 after attending Southern Methodist University, said he created a spreadsheet of Maas and her scores of weekly “Healthy Living” segments.
He said 53 were basically voice-overs of packaged CNN content or just added an easy interview. Eighteen he classified as “minimal effort,” drawn from public relations pitches.
McKinnon said he found only 10 segments that qualified as wholly her own enterprise. And as manager of digital content, he said the Healthy Living segments drew “very few views” on the KUSI YouTube channel.
Maas attorney Josh Gruenberg countered with a list of enterprise reports and challenged McKinnon’s contention Maas had a tiny social media footprint, noting that she was hired as a “social media influencer” by Rady Children’s Hospital.
McKinnon admitted on the stand that he once told Maas she could deactivate her social media when one of her posts drew “mean comments.”
Just before lunch, KUSI called morning anchor Lauren Phinney to the stand, who testified that Maas had a “lackluster attitude” and preferred being “in her bubble” outside of work.
Phinney said it was “obvious she wasn’t happy with her job. …. She didn’t really like much of anything — the building, the equipment, the McKinnons.”
But the jury was shown a warm farewell message Phinney sent Maas: “You’ve always carried yourself with class, confidence and grace.”
During cross examination, Maas lawyer Pamela Vallero said: “Was there a lot of weekly chaos?”
Phinney replied: “We work in the news business.”
Former anchor Ginger Jeffries, 50, also appeared via video, telling the court from her new home in Phoenix she had received an email summons to testify.
A former Palm Springs TV news celebrity and meteorologist, Jeffries said she sold herself to KUSI news director Steve Cohen as “a Swiss Army knife of news.”
She said she once got a raise she didn’t ask for, and negotiated her own five-year contract at KUSI, where she started in January 2018 and stayed 4 1/2 years.
A college biology degree holder who once aspired to be a doctor, Jeffries also did health segments, and boasted of special reports that included a successful “call to action” on sexually violent predators and an interview with the wife of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher that led to her photo being in The New York Times.
Maas attorney Gruenberg sought to depict Jeffries as a someone who might one day want to resume working at KUSI, perhaps as Cohen’s successor as news director.
“You want to help KUSI, correct?” Gruenberg asked her.
Jeffries said she’s rejected two broadcast news offers, including one from NBC two weeks ago. But she’s started a business with her husband and is doing ghostwriting while meeting “family demands.”
KUSI Expert Raked
KUSI called CPA Addleman to the stand, where she provoked anger from the Maas team by suggesting through her salary comparisons that Byrnes and Austell — and not just Denton — should be used to decide on potential pay-disparity damages.
Under direct examination by KUSI’s Caitlin Macker, Addleman said she reviewed Maas, Denton, Byrnes and Austell’s biographies and contracts.
Addleman’s bottom line: Maas deserved “zero” for “equal pay damage” over her final four years.
During a jury break, an angry Gruenberg told the judge Addleman was “masquerading” as an expert. “This lady goes and looks at contracts” and says they do similar work, he said.
“This is not just accounting,” the Maas lawyer added. “It’s making the argument these are comparators” for the sake of deciding if Maas was illegally underpaid.
Gruenberg began a series of tough questions that sparked KUSI objections — all sustained. But he was able to learn that Addleman was being paid $425 an hour by KUSI attorney Marisa Janine-Page (although Addleman had “no idea” how much she’s made to date. “I have no estimate.”)
Ashlie Rodriguez, called as a rebuttal witness for plaintiff Maas, described herself as a fan of Maas (and former “It Ain’t Right” reporter Michael Turko) while growing up in La Mesa.
Working at KUSI, she said, she saw Maas as an “uplifting force in the … unusually tense newsroom. … She was the face of KUSI. … I always considered her the main anchor.”
Allen Denton would get Rodriguez’s name wrong, she said, and when he was doing live interviews, “you kind of held your breath” for fear of a miscue. Maas, by contrast, “held it together. She was the glue” in the newsroom.
Rodriguez offered an opinion on the pay-equity, gender/age bias and retaliation case expected to go to the jury Wednesday.
Maas, she said, “was speaking for a lot of the women at that station. I had no future at KUSI.”
Story updated at 8:40 p.m. March 8, 2023